As an ACCA student, you’re no doubt well aware of the introduction of Strategic Business Leader (SBL), with the first exam taking place in September 2018. This has replaced the P1 and P3 exams, which were last examined in June 2018.

ACCA has made a huge push to make sure you’re as prepared as possible to sit SBL successfully in the coming months, whether that’s this September or later.

The biggest mistake students may make is to assume that the SBL exam is the same as previous ACCA exams. SBL represents a major change – so how you prepare, study and answer the exam will be very different too.

Earlier this year ACCA ran an exercise where tutors could sit a mock exam for SBL. I sat this exam, so take this advice from somebody who has been exactly where you are going to be in September or later in your ACCA journey.

First, let’s look at all the benefits you will get for your future career and then we can look at how these skills will maximise your marks in the exam. 

New skills gained by studying Strategic Business Leader

Differences with other ACCA exams Strategic Business Leader skills gained
1 Advanced exam preparation and study Using news content for studying will help you build a set of solutions for future work-based discussions
2 Ethics and Professional Skills module A MUST before taking on SBL. A MUST to be both ethical and professional for your whole career
3 Exam time The four-hour exam time enhances your concentration for bigger projects
4 Case study and exam planning Understanding the problem and planning the solution is the difference between a successful career or being one of the crowd
5 Professional skills These skills will be beneficial forever and worth exam marks right now
6 Level of application Don’t nearly finish something, finish everything the best you can. SBL is no exception so give it everything.
7 Audience   If you can’t communicate with your audience then all the knowledge in the world won’t help you get your point across. Understand who you are talking to and how to address them is half the battle.
8 Answer types Different approaches and answers can receive similar marks – no strict right or wrong
9 Writing skills Vital – you must prepare reports, memos and presentations all to a high standard. You don’t want to be that person that gets all their work re-written.

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Ways to maximise your marks

1.   Advanced exam preparation and study
All students differ in their study patterns. Some will commit to the whole period between the end of one exam and the beginning of the next, while others wait for results to decide which subject to take next. In all of these scenarios there will be those who pass first time and those who don’t.

SBL is different. Twelve weeks is the absolute minimum you need to study for a pass. SBL has been described by ACCA as needing 150% of the study time for any other Strategic Professional exam – that means 18 weeks. So when you do decide to take SBL, give yourself the best chance of passing by leaving plenty of time.

There are no shortcuts with SBL.  

2.   Ethics and Professional Skills module
The Ethics and Professional Skills module will massively benefit your studies, and make passing later exams much more likely. As such, I strongly recommend you take this module before you start any of your Strategic Professional exams – but especially before you take SBL.

If you don’t take this module first, you’ll really regret it when you realise how much you’d have benefited later!

3.   Exam time
Most of the exams you’ve taken so far have been three hours and 15 minutes. You might think 45 minutes extra isn’t such a big deal, but think again. Another 45 minutes of concentration is tougher than you think. The amount of writing might be the same but staying focused requires discipline built by giving yourself enough time to study.

A serious warning – if you were lucky enough to have exemptions for all the Applied Skills exams, think again about taking on SBL as your first exam. Take Strategic Business Reporting or one of the Options exams first.

4.   Case study and exam planning
Specimen exam 1 for SBL has six exhibits over eight pages of content and the questions split into 19 different parts, each with its technical and professional marks indicated. You must answer ALL these parts, and your audience varies from CFO to CEO to the board or to auditors.

This is no easy task. And like all major tasks, careful planning is an absolute must.

First, make sure you’ve attempted both specimen exams currently available from ACCA – in exam conditions and timed. This is so that you’re familiar with the exam layout and make your mistakes before exam day, not during!

Second, don’t write any answers in your answer book until you’ve considered the case study and have planned your answers. It’s critical you answer the exact question asked, otherwise you won’t pick up marks and you’ll waste time.

Third, although four hours means you probably won’t run out of time, it doesn’t mean you can waste time. I would advise you to spend 45 minutes planning, and three hours writing your answers. Allow 2.25 minutes per mark, and that allows you some time at the end to review your answers and return to those sections that you weren’t certain about earlier.

5.   Professional skills
Most of you are taking your ACCA exams to progress your career or start a new career as an accountant. No modern-day accountant can do a good job without being able to immediately add value to the company they are working for.

This doesn’t just mean doing an NPV calculation or consolidating a group cashflow statement. You’ll need to use your expertise to help stakeholders make better decisions. You do this by understanding and applying analytical skills, evaluation, scepticism, communication and commercial acumen.

That’s one reason SBL exists. These skills don’t only help your future career – they help you get up to 20 marks in your exam. Not for applying knowledge, but applying those skills throughout the exam.

Professional skills marks are hard to come by with poor knowledge. And good professional skills help you maximise your technical marks too. But work on your knowledge and skills collectively and they could be the easiest marks you have ever received in an ACCA exam.

6.   Application not regurgitation
As you move through the Applied Skills exams and the Strategic Professional exams, your level of regurgitation has decreased and level of application has increased. Think about it logically. If your manager asked you for an assessment of a business you would not list Porter’s Five Forces and explain what each means. You would immediately pick out the major points using this model as a framework. And hopefully Porter himself doesn’t get a mention.

The SBL exam is no different. Read the requirement and identify an appropriate model or approach and then apply the details of the case study to the model, without ever referring to it directly. Keep that secret sauce to yourself otherwise everybody would be able to do your job.

7.   Understand the audience
If, in your current or future career, you were asked by your manager to write a report on the performance of a product, you would not just write ‘good’ or ‘bad’. You would hopefully provide a detailed financial analysis with an analysis of the marketplace and conclude with any suggestions that may be on price, quantities, advertising, etc.

If a board member asked you the same question, the level of detail would be less granular and your recommendations would be the key discussion point.

SBL asks you the same thing. If you are asked for a memo, presentation or a report, be aware of your audience and target the content accordingly.

8.   More than one right answer
It’s hard to tell someone who has been through Applied Skills that there’s often more than one right answer. Generally in those exams, there is only one right answer, but SBL is looking for solutions. There are many solutions to the same problem that will achieve more or less the same objective. That is SBL.

Think about it this way. In most business decisions there’s generally more than one opinion, so why should the examiners be different? The answer is, they’re not.

The case study and requirements encourage you to apply your knowledge and come up with a solution that is realistic. That solution might only be one option of many. Once you achieve that you will pick up marks for the content and most likely some professional marks too. Trust yourself and the hard work you have put in and you will get your rewards.

9.   Writing skills
Writing for more than three hours is hard, ACCA students know this. But to maximise your marks and earn the most professional skills marks, your answers must be easy to read and quickly get to the point. Some of the shortest answers receive the highest marks for that very reason.

So don’t list every single option that a company could possibly do. Instead, discuss the options that the company can realistically implement based on the data you have in the exhibits. That means, if it’s not relevant to the question or the case study, then don’t write it down. That is the best way to reduce the amount you write and maximise your marks.

So that’s it. Key ways to maximise your marks in SBL and build skills that will last your whole career. Follow these steps and you’ll increase your chances of passing SBL – and hopefully the full suite of Strategic Professional exams too. 

Alan Lynch, LearnSignal's head of ACCA

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